The American Cult of Bombing

A common sight: American warplanes over a burning Iraq
A common sight: American warplanes over a burning desert

Why You Should Expect More Bombs to be Dropped Everywhere
By William J. Astore

Read the entire article at TomDispatch.com

When you do something again and again, placing great faith in it, investing enormous amounts of money in it, only to see indifferent or even negative results, you wouldn’t be entirely surprised if a neutral observer questioned your sanity or asked you if you were part of some cult.  Yet few Americans question the sanity or cult-like behavior of American presidents as they continue to seek solutions to complex issues by bombing Iraq (as well as numerous other countries across the globe).

Poor Iraq. From Operation Desert Shield/Storm under George H.W. Bush to enforcing no-fly zones under Bill Clinton to Operation Iraqi Freedom under George W. Bush to the latest “humanitarian” bombing under Barack Obama, the one constant is American bombs bursting in Iraqi desert air.  Yet despite this bombing — or rather in part because of it — Iraq is a devastated and destabilized country, slowly falling apart at seams that have been unraveling under almost a quarter-century of steady, at times relentless, pounding.  “Shock and awe,” anyone?


Well, I confess to being shocked: that U.S. airpower assets, including strategic bombers like B-52s and B-1s, built during the Cold War to deter and, if necessary, attack that second planetary superpower, the Soviet Union, have routinely been used to attack countries that are essentially helpless to defend themselves from bombing.

In 1985, when I entered active duty as an Air Force lieutenant, if you had asked me which country the U.S. would “have” to bomb in four sustained aerial campaigns spanning three decades, among the last countries I would have suggested was Iraq.  Heck, back then we were still helping Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, sharing intelligence that aided his military in pinpointing (and using his chemical weapons against) Iranian troop concentrations.  The Reagan administration had sent future Bush secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld there to shake Saddam’s hand for a photo op.  We even overlooked Iraq’s “accidental” bombing in 1987 of a American naval vessel, the USS Stark, that resulted in the death of 37 American sailors, all in the name of containing Iran (and Shia revolutionary fervor).

What we need in 2014 is a new expression that catches the essence of the cult of U.S. air power, something like: “The bomber will always get funded — and used.”

Let’s tackle the first half of that equation: the bomber will always get funded.  Skeptical?  What else captures the reality (as well as the folly) of dedicating more than $400 billion to the F-35 fighter-bomber program, a wildly over-budget and underperforming weapons system that may, in the end, cost the American taxpayer $1.5 trillion.  Yes, you read that right.   Or the persistence of U.S. plans to build yet another long-range “strike” bomber to augment and replace the B-1 and B-2 fleet?  It’s a “must-have,” according to the Air Force, if the U.S. is to maintain its “full-spectrum dominance” on Planet Earth.  Already pegged at an estimated price of $550 million per plane while still on the drawing boards, it’s just about guaranteed to replace the F-35 in the record books, when it comes to delays, cost overruns, and price.  And if you don’t think it’ll get funded, you don’t know recent history.

Heck, I get it.  I was a teenager once.  In the 1970s, as an Air Force enthusiast and child of the Cold War, I hugged exotic and therefore pricey bomber jets to my chest. (Well, models of them, anyway.)  I considered them to be both uniquely American and an absolute necessity when it came to defending our country against the lumbering (but nevertheless menacing) Soviet “bear.”  As a result, I gasped in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter dared to cancel the B-1 bomber program.  While I was a little young to pen my outrage, more mature critics than I quickly accused him of being soft on defense, of pursuing “unilateral disarmament.”

Back then, I’d built a model of the B-1 bomber.  In my mind’s eye I still see its sexy white body and its rakish swing wings.  No question that it was a man’s bomber.  I recall attaching a firecracker to its body, lighting the wick, and dropping the plane from the third-floor porch.  It exploded in mid-air, symbolic to me of the plane’s tragic fate at the hands of the pusillanimous Carter.

But I need not have feared for the B-1.  In October 1981, as one of his first major acts in office, President Ronald Reagan rescinded Carter’s cancellation and revived the mothballed program.  The Air Force eventually bought 100 of the planes for $28 billion, expensive at the time (and called a “turkey” by some), but a relative bargain in the present budgetary environment when it comes to bombers (but these days, little else).

At that point, I was a young lieutenant serving on active duty in the Air Force.  I had by then come to learn that Carter, the peanut farmer (and former Navy nuclear engineer), was right.  We really didn’t need the B-1 for our defense.  In 1986, for a contest at Peterson Air Force Base where I was stationed, I wrote a paper against the B-1, terming the idea of a “penetrating strategic bomber” a “flawed strategy” in an era of long-range air-launched cruise missiles.  It earned an honorable mention, the equivalent of drawing the “you have won second prize in a beauty contest” card in Monopoly, but without the compensatory $10.

That “penetrating,” by the way, meant being loaded with expensive avionics, nowadays augmented by budget-busting “stealth” features, so that a plane could theoretically penetrate enemy air defenses while eluding detection.  If the idea of producing such a bomber was flawed in the 1980s, how much more is it today, in an age of remotely-piloted drones and missiles guided by GPS and in a world in which no country the U.S. chooses to bomb is likely to have air defenses of any sophistication?  Yet the Air Force insists that it needs at least 100 of the next generation version of them at a cost of $55 billion.  (Based on experience, especially with the F-35, you should automatically double or even triple that price tag, cost overruns and product development delays being a given in the process.  So let’s say it’ll cost closer to $150 billion.  Check back with me, God willing, in 2040 to see whether the Air Force’s figure or mine was closer to reality.)

Idols for Worship, Urges to Satisfy

Obviously, there are staggering amounts of money to be made by feeding America’s fetish for bombers.  But the U.S. cult of air power and its wildly expensive persistence requires further explanation.  On one level, exotic and expensive attack planes like the F-35 or the future “long range strike bomber” (LRS-B in bloodless acronym-speak) are the military equivalent of sacred cows.  They are idols to be worshipped (and funded) without question.  But they are also symptoms of a larger disease — the engorgement of the Department of Defense.  In the post-9/11 world, this has become so pronounced that the military-industrial-congressional complex clearly believes it is entitled to a trough filled with money with virtually no accountability to the American taxpayer.

Add to that sense of entitlement the absurdist faith of administration after administration in the efficacy of bombing as a problem solver — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — and you have a truly lethal combo.  Senator John McCain was widely mocked by progressives for his “bomb Iran” song, warbled during the 2008 presidential campaign to the tune of the Beach Boys’s “Barbara Ann.”  In fact, his tuneless rendition captured perfectly Washington’s absolute faith in bombing as a solution to…whatever.

Even if the bombs bursting over Iraq or elsewhere don’t solve anything, even when they make things worse, they still make a president look, well, presidential.  In America, land of warbirds, it is always better politically to pose as a hunting hawk than a helpless dove.

So don’t blame the Air Force for wanting more and deadlier bombers.  Or don’t blame only them.  Just as admirals want more ships, flyboys naturally want more planes, even when strategically obsolete from scratch and blazingly expensive.  No military service has ever willingly given up even a tiny slice of its share of the prospective budgetary pie, especially if that slice cuts into the service’s core image.  In this sense, the Air Force takes its motto from King Lear’s “Reason not the need!” and from Zack Mayo’s “I want to fly jets!” (memorably uttered by that great Shakespearean actor Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman).

The sad truth runs deeper: Americans evidently want them, too.  More bombers.  More bombs.  In the movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise’s Maverick got it all wrong.  It’s not speed Americans feel a need for; they have an urge to bomb.  When you refuse to reason, when you persist in investing ever more resources in ever more planes, use almost automatically follows.

In other words, fund it, build it, and, as promised in the second half of my equation, the bomber will always get used.  Mock him all you want, but John McCain was on to something.  It’s bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb if not (yet) Iran… then Iraq, or Pakistan, or Libya, or Yemen, or (insert intransigent foreign country/peoples here).

And like cults everywhere, it’s best not to question the core belief and practices of its leaders — after all, bombs bursting in air is now as American as the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Still Pursuing the Dream of Bombing

B-1 Bomber (NYT photo)
B-1 Bomber (NYT photo)

W.J. Astore

There you go again, President Obama, echoing a line delivered by that consummate actor, Ronald Reagan.  Yes, we’re bombing Iraq again, in the name of humanitarianism.  This time, we’re only getting the “bad” Iraqis, so it’s OK.  Right?

The only “humanitarian” bombing I’ve ever heard of is in fiction; specifically, in Slaughter-House Five, where Kurt Vonnegut imagined a bombing raid in reverse, with bombs returning to their planes and bodies blown into pieces magically reassembling into living, breathing, human beings.

The U.S. still believes in the dream of airpower: that it’s cheap, surgical, decisive.  But history has taught us otherwise, a fact I wrote about at TomDispatch.com in March of 2013.  But who cares about history — it’s bunk, right?

So we persist in our “bombs away” mentality, whether it’s Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Libya or Yemen or … well, you get the picture.

Here is the article I wrote about airpower and its lessons.  Consider it as you listen to media reports of how precise and decisive and “modulated” and “measured” our most current raids have been.

The lesson, I think, is simple: So many bombs; so little brains.

The Ever-Destructive Dreams of Air Power Enthusiasts

By William J. Astore

Today’s unmanned aerial vehicles, most famously Predator and Reaper drones, have been celebrated as the culmination of the longtime dreams of airpower enthusiasts, offering the possibility of victory through quick, clean, and selective destruction.  Those drones, so the (very old) story goes, assure the U.S. military of command of the high ground, and so provide the royal road to a speedy and decisive triumph over helpless enemies below.

Fantasies about the certain success of air power in transforming, even ending, war as we know it arose with the plane itself.  But when it comes to killing people from the skies, again and again air power has proven neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive nor in itself triumphant.  Seductive and tenacious as the dreams of air supremacy continue to be, much as they automatically attach themselves to the latest machine to take to the skies, air power has not fundamentally softened the brutal face of war, nor has it made war less dirty or chaotic.

Indeed, by emboldening politicians to seek seemingly low-cost, Olympian solutions to complex human problems — like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the sky to skewer puny mortals — it has fostered fantasies of illimitable power emboldened by contempt for human life.  However, just like Zeus’s obdurate and rebellious subjects, the mortals on the receiving end of death from on high have shown surprising strength in frustrating the designs of the air power gods, whether past or present. Yet the Olympian fantasy persists, a fact that requires explanation.


The Rise of Air Power

It did not take long after the Wright Brothers first put a machine in the air for a few exhilarating moments above the sandy beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903, for the militaries of industrialized countries to express interest in buying and testing airplanes.  Previously balloons had been used for reconnaissance, as in the Napoleonic wars and the U.S. Civil War, and so initially fledgling air branches focused on surveillance and intelligence-gathering.  As early as 1911, however, Italian aircraft began dropping small bombs from open-air cockpits on the enemy — we might today call them “insurgents” — in Libya.

World War I encouraged the development of specialized aircraft, most famously the dancing bi- and tri-winged fighter planes of the dashing “knights of the air,” as well as the more ponderous, but for the future far more important, bombers.   By the close of World War I in 1918, each side had developed multi-engine bombers like the German Gotha, which superseded the more vulnerable zeppelins.  Their mission was to fly over the trenches where the opposing armies were stalemated and take the war to the enemy’s homeland, striking fear in his heart and compelling him to surrender.  Fortunately for civilians a century ago, those bombers were too few in number, and their payloads too limited, to inflict widespread destruction, although German air attacks on England in 1917 did spread confusion and, in a few cases, panic.

Pondering the hecatombs of dead from trench warfare, air power enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s not surprisingly argued strongly, and sometimes insubordinately, for the decisive importance of bombing campaigns launched by independent air forces.  A leading enthusiast was Italy’s Giulio Douhet.  In his 1921 work Il dominio dell’aria (Command of the Air), he argued that in future wars strategic bombing attacks by heavily armed “battle-planes” (bombers) would produce rapid and decisive victories.  Driven by a fascist-inspired logic of victory through preemptive attack, Douhet called for all-out air strikes to destroy the enemy’s air force and its bases, followed by hammer blows against industry and civilians using high-explosive, incendiary, and poison-gas bombs.  Such blows, he predicted, would produce psychological uproar and social chaos (“shock and awe,” in modern parlance), fatally weakening the enemy’s will to resist.

As treacherous and immoral as his ideas may sound, Douhet’s intent was to shorten wars and lessen casualties — at least for his side.  Better to subdue the enemy by pressing hard on select pressure points (even if the “pressing” was via high explosives and poison gas, and the “points” included concentrations of innocent civilians), rather than forcing your own army to bog down in bloody, protracted land wars.

That air power was inherently offensive and uniquely efficacious in winning cheap victories was a conclusion that found a receptive audience in Great Britain and the United States.  In England, Hugh Trenchard, founding father of the Royal Air Force (RAF), embraced strategic bombing as the most direct way to degrade the enemy’s will; he boldly asserted that “the moral effect of bombing stands undoubtedly to the material effect in a proportion of twenty to one.”

Even bolder was his American counterpart, William “Billy” Mitchell, famously court-martialed and romanticized as a “martyr” to air power.  (In his honor, cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy still eat in Mitchell Hall.)  At the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s, U.S. airmen refined Mitchell’s tenets, developing a “vital centers” theory of bombing — the idea that one could compel an enemy to surrender by identifying and destroying his vulnerable economic nodes.  It therefore came as no accident that the U.S. entered World War II with the world’s best heavy bomber, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and a fervid belief that “precision bombing” would be the most direct path to victory.

World War II and After: Dehousing, Scorching, Boiling, and Baking the Enemy

In World War II, “strategic” air forces that focused on winning the war by heavy bombing reached young adulthood, with all the swagger associated with that stage of maturity.  The moral outrage of Western democracies that accompanied the German bombing of civilian populations in Guernica, Spain, in 1937 or Rotterdam in 1940 was quickly forgotten once the Allies sought to open a “second front” against Hitler through the air.  Four-engine strategic bombers like the B-17 and the British Lancaster flew for thousands of miles carrying bomb loads measured in tons.  From 1942 to 1945 they rained two million tons of ordnance on Axis targets in Europe, but accuracy in bombing remained elusive.

While the U.S. attempted and failed at precision daylight bombing against Germany’s “vital centers,” Britain’s RAF Bomber Command began employing what was bloodlessly termed “area bombing” at night in a “dehousing” campaign led by Arthur “Bomber” Harris.  What became an American/British combined bomber offensive killed 600,000 German civilians, including 120,000 children, reducing cities like Cologne (1942), Hamburg (1943), Berlin (1944-45), and Dresden (1945) to rubble.

Yet, contrary to the dreams of air power advocates, Germany’s will to resist remained unbroken.  The vaunted second front of aerial battle became yet another bloody attritional brawl, with hundreds of thousands of civilians joining scores of thousands of aircrews in death.

Similarly mauled but unbroken by bombing was Japan, despite an air campaign of relentless intensity that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians.  Planned and directed by Major General Curtis LeMay, new B-29 bombers loaded with incendiaries struck Tokyo, a city made largely of wood, in March 1945, creating a firestorm that in his words “scorched and boiled and baked [the Japanese] to death.”  As many as 100,000 Japanese died in this attack.

Subsequently, 60 more cities were firebombed until the apotheosis of destruction came that August as atomic bombs incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing another 200,000 people.  It quickly became an article of faith among American air power enthusiasts that these bombs had driven Japan to surrender; together with this, the “decisive” air campaign against Germany became reason enough to justify an independent U.S. Air Force, which was created by the National Security Act of 1947.

In the total war against Nazi and Japanese terror, moral concerns, when expressed, came privately.  General Ira Eaker worried that future generations might condemn the Allied bombing campaign against Germany for its targeting of “the man in the street.”  Even LeMay, not known for introspective doubts, worried in 1945 that he and his team would likely be tried as war criminals if the U.S. failed to defeat Japan.  (So Robert McNamara, then an Army Air Force officer working for LeMay, recalled in the documentary The Fog of War.)

But moral qualms were put aside in the post-war glow of victory and as the fear rose of future battles with communism.  The Korean War (1950-1953) may have ushered in the jet age, as symbolized by the dogfights of American Sabre Jets and Soviet MiGs over the Yalu River, but it also witnessed the devastation by bombing of North Korea, even as the enemy took cover underground and refused to do what air power strategists had always assumed they would: give up.

Still, for the U.S. Air Force, the real action of that era lay largely in the realm of dystopian fantasies as it created the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which coordinated two legs of the nuclear triad, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos and nuclear-armed long-range bombers. (The third was nuclear-missile-armed submarines.)  SAC kept some of those bombers carrying thermonuclear weapons in the air 24/7 as a “deterrent” to a Soviet nuclear first strike (and as a constant first strike threat of our own).  “Thinking about the unthinkable” — that is, nuclear Armageddon — became all the rage, with “massive retaliation” serving as the byword for air power enthusiasts.  In this way, dreams of clean victories morphed into nightmares of global thermonuclear annihilation, leaving the 1930s air power ideal of “clean” and “surgical” strikes in the dust — for the time being.

Reaping What We Sow

Despite an unimaginably powerful nuclear deterrent that essentially couldn’t be used, the U.S. Air Force had to relearn the hard way that there remained limits to the efficacy of air power, especially when applied to low-intensity, counterinsurgency wars.  As in Korea in the 1950s, air power in the 1960s and 1970s failed to provide the winning edge in the Vietnam War, even as it spread wanton destruction throughout the Vietnamese countryside.  But it was the arrival of “smart” bombs near that war’s end that marked the revival of the fantasies of air power enthusiasts about “precision bombing” as the path to future victory.

By the 1990s, laser- and GPS-guided bombs (known collectively as PGMs, for precision guided munitions) were relegating unguided, “dumb” bombs largely to the past.  Yet like their predecessors, PGMs proved no panacea.  In the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, for example, 50 precision “decapitation strikes” targeting dictator Saddam Hussein’s top leadership failed to hit any of their intended targets, while causing “dozens” of civilian deaths.  That same year, air power’s inability to produce decisive results on the ground after Iraq’s descent into chaos, insurrection, and civil war served as a reminder that the vaunted success of the U.S. air campaign in the First Gulf War (1991) was a fluke, not a flowering of air power’s maturity.  (Saddam Hussein made his traditionally organized military, defenseless against air power, occupy static positions after his invasion of Kuwait.)

The recent marriage of PGMs to drones, hailed as the newest “perfect weapon” in the air arsenal, has once again led to the usual fantasies about the arrival — finally, almost 100 years late — of clean, precise, and decisive war.  Using drones, a military need not risk even a pilot’s life in its attacks.  Yet the nature of war — its horrors, its unpredictability, its tendency to outlive its original causes — remains fundamentally unaltered by “precision” drone strikes.  War’s inherent fog and friction persist.  In the case of drones, that fog is often generated by faulty intelligence, the friction by malfunctioning weaponry or innocent civilians appearing just as the Hellfire missiles are unleashed.  Rather than clean wars of decision, drone strikes decide nothing.  Instead, they produce their share of “collateral damage” that only spawns new enemies seeking revenge.

The fantasy of air war as a realm of technical decision, as an exercise in decisively finding, fixing, and dispatching the enemy, appeals to a country like the United States that idolizes technology as a way to quick fixes.  As a result, it’s hardly surprising that two administrations in Washington have ever more zealously pursued drone wars and aerial global assassination campaigns, already killing 4,700 “terrorists” and bystanders. And this has been just part of our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president’s campaign of 20,000 air strikes (only 10% of which were drone strikes) in his first term of office.  Yet despite — or perhaps because of — these attacks, our global war against al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other groups like the Taliban appears no closer to ending.

And that is, in part, because the dream of air power remains just that: a fantasy, a capricious and destructive will-o’-the-wisp.  It’s a fantasy because it denies agency to enemies (and others) who invariably find ways to react, adapt, and strike back.  It’s a fantasy because, however much such attacks seem both alluringly low-risk and high-reward to the U.S. military, they become a rallying cause for those on the other end of the bombs and missiles.

A much-quoted line from the movie Apocalypse Now captured the insanity of the American air war in Vietnam.  “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” says an Air Cav commander played by Robert Duvall.  “Smelled like… victory.”  Updated for drone warfare, this line might read: “I love the sound of drones in the morning.  Sounds like… victory.”  But will we say the same when armed drones are hovering, not only above our enemies’ heads but above ours, too, in fortress America, enforcing security and conformity while smiting citizens judged to be rebellious?

Something tells me this is not the dream that airpower enthusiasts had in mind.

William J. Astore

The Best Air Raid Ever

vonnegut

W.J. Astore

I finally had a chance to read Kurt Vonnegut’s classic book, Slaughter-House Five, based upon his experiences in World War II as a POW who survived the firebombing of Dresden in 1945.

I grew up on war stories featuring air raids by the German Luftwaffe as well as the Allied combined bombing offensive of World War II. Favorite paperbacks that I read include Cajus Bekker’s The Luftwaffe War Diaries, Adolf Galland’s The First and the Last, and Big Week by Bill Yenne (about the week in February 1944 when the Allies turned the tide of the air campaign against the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany).  All of these books had one thing in common: they were written from the perspective of the air crews, not from the perspective of those on the receiving end of bombs and bullets and fire.  As such, they read like adventure stories, at least to my excitable teenage mind.

Kurt Vonnegut gave us a different perspective in Slaughter-House Five: at the ground level, during and after the firestorm that destroyed Dresden in February 1945, one year after the Allies had allegedly turned the tide and “won” the air battle during Big Week.  The moon scape that Vonnegut encountered after leaving his shelter was evidence of the perfect firestorm the Allies had created in their bombing raids over Dresden, which combined area bombing at night by Britain’s Royal Air Force (using a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs) with daylight “precision” bombing by U.S. bomber forces.

But I don’t want to speak about the horrors of that raid.  No need to repeat Vonnegut’s account.  What struck me in reading his book was an imaginary air raid, an air raid that runs backwards.  In Vonnegut’s words:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

There you have it: the best air raid ever, brought to you via the imagination of a great writer who survived one of the worst air raids ever.

I’m not sure Vonnegut’s words would have resonated with my teenage mind, caught as it was in dramatic and deadly duels in the skies over Europe.  As Vonnegut knew, there’s an endless supply of dumb teenagers fantasizing about war.  So it goes.

 

Lessons of the Vietnam War

The My Lai Massacre
The My Lai Massacre

W.J. Astore

Nick Turse has a fine op-ed in the New York Times, “For America, Life Was Cheap in Vietnam.”  In it he argues that for Americans involved in the Vietnam War, life was very cheap indeed – Vietnamese lives, that is.  Turse has written a powerful book, “Kill Anything that Moves,” that documents the total war the United States waged on the Vietnamese people and countryside.  As Turse notes in his op-ed, American leaders like General William Westmoreland demonstrated “a profligate disregard for human life,” mainly because their strategy “was to kill as many ‘enemies’ as possible, with success measured by body count.  Often, those bodies were not enemy soldiers,” Turse concludes.

As the U.S. embraced a bloody war of attrition, Turse observes that “the United States declared wide swaths of the South Vietnamese countryside to be free-fire zones where even innocent civilians could be treated as enemy forces. Artillery shelling, intended to keep the enemy in a state of constant unease, and near unrestrained bombing slaughtered noncombatants and drove hundreds of thousands of civilians into slums and refugee camps.”

I recently came across two accounts that lend further support to Turse’s conclusion.  The first is an article written by Bernard Fall, “This Isn’t Munich, It’s Spain,” published in Ramparts in December 1965.  (My thanks to Dan White for bringing this article to my attention.)  Bernard Fall was an expert on Vietnam; among other classic books, he wrote “Hell In A Very Small Place” (about the siege of Dien Bien Phu) and “Street Without Joy.”  He was killed by a mine in Vietnam in 1967.

Writing in 1965, in the early stages of large-scale American deployment of troops, Fall noted that the war had already become “depersonalized and, to a large extent, dehumanized.”  “It is a brutal war,” Fall continued, “and already, in what may loosely be termed the ‘American period’ [of Indochinese conflict], the dead are near a quarter million, with perhaps another half million people seriously maimed.”

“A truly staggering amount of civilians are getting killed or maimed in this war,” Fall concluded, illustrating his point by recounting an air raid he had accompanied that destroyed a Vietnamese fishing village.

By later standards (massive bombing by B-52s in Arc Light attacks), the air raid Fall witnessed, consisting of A-1 Skyraiders carrying napalm and fragmentation bombs, was small.  But don’t tell that to the Vietnamese fishing village that was utterly destroyed in this “small” raid.  As Fall recounts, the village may or may not have been harboring a Viet Cong unit.  If it had been harboring a VC unit, it may have done so unwillingly, and that VC unit may have already moved along by the time the Skyraiders appeared overhead.  No matter.  The village and villagers were burnt, blown apart, and strafed.  A U.S. official report recorded that a VC rest center “had been successfully destroyed.”

Such indiscriminate attacks convinced Fall that the U.S. was not “able to see the Vietnamese as people against whom crimes can be committed.  This is the ultimate impersonalization of war.”

But even more worryingly for Fall was that “The incredible thing about Vietnam is that the worst is yet to come,” a tragically prescient statement.

And the worst might be represented by U.S. Army Lieutenant General Julian Ewell.  As the commanding general of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam, Ewell became known as the “Butcher of the Delta.”  Douglas Kinnard, an American general serving in Vietnam under Ewell, recounted his impressions of him (in “Adventures in Two Worlds: Vietnam General and Vermont Professor”):

Ewell, recalled Kinnard, “constantly pressed his units to increase their ‘body count’ of enemy soldiers.  This had become a way of measuring the success of a unit since Vietnam was a war of attrition, not a linear war with an advancing front line.  In the 9th [infantry division] he had required all his commanders to carry 3” x 5” cards with body count tallies for their units by date, by week, and by month.  Woe unto any commander who did not have a consistently high count.”

In a war in which commanding generals rewarded American troops for generating high enemy body count and punished those “slackers” who didn’t kill enough of the enemy, small wonder that Vietnam became an American killing field and a breeding ground for atrocity.

Bernard Fall ended his powerful article on an ambiguous note.  After having talked to a lot of Americans in Vietnam, he noted he hadn’t “found anyone who seems to have a clear idea of the end – of the ‘war aims’ – and if the end is not clearly defined, are we justified to use any means to attain it?”

In Vietnam, the U.S. used immoderate means, often with wanton disregard for the lives or livelihood of the Vietnamese people, in pursuit of ill-defined ends.  Echoing Fall’s words, we pursued open-ended devastation for no clear purpose with little regard to moral responsibility.

We lost more than a war in Vietnam.  We lost our humanity.